4.04.2008

The 40th Anniversary of the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr, I am reposting two items from January 2008.

"Walks Singing": The Selma to Montgomery March, March 21-25, 1965

The distance from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, the state capital, is about 54 miles. When marchers assembled for the third attempt to make the walk in support of voting rights with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in March of 1965 - the first had met with state-supported violence at the Pettus Bridge and the second stopped by court order, several participants were not fully prepared for four days of walking 12 miles per day and sleeping in tents on the roadside at night. But conviction will overcome these kind of obstacles.

Thousands of people flew into Selma and Montgomery to assist with the march and to give whatever aid they could. The march itself had been limited to three hundred participants at any time. Among the entertainers who attended a rally on the fourth night of the march were Shelley Winters, Tony Perkins, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, Dick Gregory, Sammy Davis, Jr., Mike Nichols and Elaine May. On this last full night of the march, the last before the final miles into Montgomery the following day, many of the marchers started falling ill from exhaustion.

Journalist Renata Adler, in her enthralling account of the march, "Letter From Selma," for April 10, 1965 issue of The New Yorker, described the scene:

On its fourth night, the march began to look first like a football rally, then like a carnival and a hootenanny, and finally like something dangerously close to a hysterical mob...Word got out that the doctors on the march had treated several cases of strep throat, two of pneumonia, one of advanced pulmonary tuberculosis, and one of epilepsy, and because of the number and variety of sick and handicapped who had made the march a macabre new joke began to go the rounds: "What has five hundred and ninety-nine legs, five hundred and ninety-eight eyes, an indeterminate number of germs, and walks singing? The march from Selma."

According to Adler, at the staged camp entertainment on Wednesday night, "A number of girls in the crowd collapsed and, because there was no other lighted space, had to be carried onstage, where Miss Winters did her best to minister them."

The march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights established the foundation for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the current presidential debate on this issue, I believe that credit for advancing this particular piece of legislation needs to shared with hundreds of exhausted walkers, the thousands that traveled to Alabama to lend their support and a handful of gutsy entertainers.

Image: Photograph by Peter Pettus. Modern gelatin silver reprint from 1965 negative. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (30)

See the website for the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail in Alabama.

The April 15, 1967 Antiwar March from Central Park to the United Nations

Organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, the antiwar march from Central Park to the United Nations on April 15, 1967 was among the largest antiwar marches in New York history. Though estimates widely vary from 100,000 to 400,000 in attendance that day, participants included a broad coalition of civil rights activists, among them Martin Luther King, Jr., and an ideological spectrum of antiwar activists.

After assembling in Central Park for a peace fair, speeches and performances, the marchers walked down Fifth Avenue and then made their way east to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at the UN. Though city officials worried about violence and mayhem, the march was peaceful, and the five people arrested belonged to the group of protesters who were opposed to the march.

The following newsreel account reveals the usual establishment sarcasm that's directed toward the protesters. In my opinion, marching with others for a just cause is a fine way to walk off the Big Apple.

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